Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

Two Iraq articles were our most popular of the week. First, Rodger Shanahan asked why President Obama needed to get involved in a religious debate:

In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

James Brown listed five fallacies in Australian thinking on Iraq. Number 5 was 'This problem can be solved without a strategy for Syria':

Air strikes in northern Iraq can contain ISIS and limit its advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. But to deny terrorists safe haven, to destroy Islamic State as a group, to stop civilian slaughter and restore relative order in Iraq, ISIS positions and strengths in Syria need to be targeted. That means a decision to intervene in Syria's civil war and alter the power balance between the Assad regime and the forces arrayed against him. That's something Obama and his allies have avoided for three years, despite a number of provocations. And the complexity of determining a strategy on Syria is why the US has not yet formed a comprehensive strategy to deal with this current crisis.

It will not be easy, but if a case for a US military campaign against ISIS is to be made next month it will have to include a strategy for Syria. Australian decision-makers should be thinking beyond just northern Iraq to determine our view of the best outcome in Syria, and what burden we might be willing to shoulder in order to achieve it.

Danielle Rajendram's summary of the likely agenda items for this week's visit by Tony Abbott to India was also popular with readers:

It has been reported that Australia and India have now concluded negotiations on the civil nuclear agreement, which began in 2012 under the Gillard Government. If all goes to plan, this agreement will be formally signed during the visit, establishing the framework for Australian uranium to be exported to India for civilian purposes. Aside from assisting India to achieve its goal of upgrading its nuclear power capacity to 20,000 MW by 2020, the conclusion of the agreement will remove what has been a major source of mistrust and an impediment to closer relations in recent years.

Stephen Grenville said that, if as some claim, the US Fed is a de facto global central bank, it is a flawed one:

The US Fed's swap operations are akin to global central bank operations, effectively making short-term US dollar loans to foreign central banks, which can on-lend these to their domestic banks to help them through a foreign currency liquidity crisis. This is analogous to traditional liquidity operations, where central banks make domestic currency loans to banks in need of liquidity. These Fed swap arrangements have been a powerful and valuable stabilising element during global financial crises since 1965 or even earlier. Until recently, however, they have been available only to a small group of advanced economies (including Australia), plus Mexico.

Andrew Kwon argued that, in Japan, Shinzo Abe has reshuffled his cabinet with a focus on internal issues:

Traditionally an opportunity to keep party factions onside by rewarding them with a share of cabinet positions, this reshuffle instead took several prestigious positions off the table. Taro Aso, Fumio Kishida, Akira Amari and Yoshihida Suga are the most prominent members of Abe's leadership team to be retained. By ensuring important positions such as Chief Cabinet Secretary and Minister of Finance (Yoshihida Suga and Taro Aso respectively) are unchanged, Abe has chosen to prioritise consistency and steadiness in pushing his ambitious legislative agenda.

Nevertheless, implementation of that agenda remains a challenge. With this in mind, the Prime Minister has bought on a mixed group of established operators and rising stars within the LDP to help spearhead legislation.

Catriona Croft-Cusworth said the Australia-Indonesia Code of Conduct, signed last week, had some troubling subtext:

Most telling of Australia's priorities in the past nine months was the way the spying row was used as an opportunity to act unilaterally against asylum seeker arrivals, as observed by both Bachelard and Sulaiman. With diplomatic relations suspended, Australia was essentially free to pursue its agenda without consulting the neighbour. The Australian Government went ahead with Operation Sovereign Borders despite Indonesia's explicit rejection of the idea, and further damaged relations by allegedly straying into Indonesia's territorial waters.

The new 'Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' offers a clean break from the sour relations of the past year, starting from a basis of agreed ethics and intentions. The outcome may have been a favourable one for Australian intelligence, but gloating over this fact should probably be kept to a minimum, and more deeply reflected upon. While Indonesia is said to be concerned with 'saving face' by patching up relations, Australia should perhaps be a little more concerned about 'losing face' from its hubristic (or is that sombong?) handling of an important relationship.

Tim Mayfield came to the defence of the Abbott Government's proposed new anti-terrorism laws:

...present legislation was conceived during a period in which the threat predominantly emanated from 'home-grown' terrorism as demonstrated in cases like Operation Pendennis and the plan to attack Holsworthy Army Barracks. Whereas the terrorism offences introduced by the Howard Government have proved adequate in accounting for such plots (with 38 people prosecuted in Australia as a result of CT operations and 22 people convicted under the Criminal Code Act 1995), they have proven far less effective against Australians based overseas.

For example, the Australian Federal Police faced substantial challenges in preparing the prosecution of Jack Thomas upon his return from training with al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Indeed, the limitations associated with conducting the investigation in Pakistan (where Thomas was detained) ultimately led to the overturning of his conviction for receiving funds from al Qaeda. It is reasonable to assume that there are other cases of returning extremists that have never seen the light of day due to the existing legislative constraints.

When the inadequacies of the current regime are matched with the fact that the Syria and Iraq theatres contain more Australians than all previous extremist conflicts combined, the rationale for the new laws becomes clearer.

Yesterday Elliot Brennan looked at al Qaeda's announcement that it was setting up an Indian subcontinent branch:

...attacks by Islamic extremists in Myanmar seem far less likely than a violent backlash from nervous and angry mobs of Buddhist extremists, at least in the short term. These will likely be provoked by firebrand clerics such as the much criticised 'bin Laden of Buddhism', U Wirathu. His movements (which track closely with the onset of recent religiously inspired violence in the country) and those of his '969' movement will be closely watched. With 140,000 Muslim Rohingya confined to IDP camps, security of these massive complexes will need to be significantly improved. The prospect of a widespread and a polarising religious conflict appears to have escalated.

Julian Snelder looked at this week's big news from Hong Kong — that China was nipping democracy in the bud:

Beijing has delivered a predictably hard-line ruling on the nomination process for the 2017 chief executive election...: Hong Kongers can vote, but candidates must be pre-approved by at least half the business-stacked electoral college. Leader of the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement Benny Tai conceded quickly that he had failed to sway Beijing and that support from a pragmatic public is waning. Some mock Tai for chickening out, but he has made a Solomonic judgment to preserve rather than destroy.

Preparing the ground a week before the announcement from Beijing, Tsinghua law dean Wang Zhenmin explained that 'the business community is a reality. Even though it's a small group of people, they control the destiny of the economy of Hong Kong. If we ignore their interest, Hong Kong capitalism will stop.' Wang reasonably advised patience: 'less perfect suffrage is better than no universal suffrage, leave some room for future growth.'

The People's Daily pitched the decision as 'crucial to the fundamental interest of foreign investors.' The Great Helmsman must be turning in his mausoleum.

Cambodia's political calm is unusual and unlikely to last, wrote Milton Osborne from Phnom Penh:

With opposition deputies having taken their places in the National Assembly after a prolonged boycott, calm pervades Cambodia's domestic politics, at least for the moment. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy's ambition to lead the country is undiminished.

What is this 'New Russia' that keeps cropping up in Putin's speeches? Matthew Sussex explained:

Putin has made two major recent references to novorossiya. The first was in April this year, to justify the annexation of Crimea. The second came when he addressed the 'militia of novorossiya' on 28 August. Now he has explicitly called for the formation of a new state in Eastern Ukraine.

If this was just posturing or signalling, there would be little reason for the West to worry. The problem, though, is that Putin is using a significant amount of hard power to bring about his vision. The T-72B1 tanks (which are not used by Ukraine) videoed near Amvrosiyivka in Ukraine are proof that he has escalated from a campaign of deniability and deception to outright intervention. Russian media made little attempt to explain what ten Russian paratroopers captured by Ukrainian forces were doing on the other side of the border, except for a bland suggestion that they had 'got lost'. When the ten were swapped for over 60 Ukrainians, it sent the message that Russian lives were intrinsically more valuable than Ukrainian ones. And the decision to keep sending relief convoys to the separatists is designed to goad Ukraine into taking action against them, which would be a pretext for a full-scale invasion.

Matt Hill said this week's NATO meeting should deal not only with Iraq and Ukraine, but with a big internal problem:

To compensate for higher costs, NATO states turn to exporting defence technology. While proliferation may help national defence industries in the short run, over longer time frames it also serves to bolster the capabilities of repressive regimes and rising powers. The starkest example is France's reluctantly aborted sale to Russia of two Mistral-class assault ships. Openly recognised as a sop for shipyards that are facing hard times amid Paris' defence retrenchment, these ships threatened a substantial technology transfer to Moscow. Russia's demand for such vessels, designed to project force in contested littoral environments, is directly tied to its revanchist ambitions, which recent events have demonstrated stretch to NATO's doorstep. The cancellation of the sale is good news for Europe. But the fact that the sale was cancelled only after the customer invaded another European country underscores the risks posed by an absence of defence industrial rationalisation.

Mike Callaghan said foreign investment policy should not be used as a bargaining chip in FTA negotiations:

Australia does need to overhaul its foreign investment review system. It needs a coherent strategy, not one based on concessions in FTAs. Moreover, the whole system should be reviewed, not just the treatment of SOEs. And Alan Fells is right; changes need to be made to the FIRB. The OECD has recommended that Australia needs to 'further promote foreign direct investment by easing the stringency of screening procedures'. But Australia needs a clear foreign investment policy strategy, and not one that looks like Swiss cheese.

Photo by Flickr user Chrls Devers.